There was something kind of perfect about kicking off Around the World in 80 Plates in London. Here were these 12 kids, who love food and cooking, chasing their dreams down cobblestone streets with the Thames in the background. I remember that.
I was 21 when I landed in London. I’d been traveling through Europe with my best mate when I decided I was going to work for legendary chef Marco Pierre White — no matter what it took. So I knocked on the door of the Grill Room at Café Royal and offered to work for free. Not exactly the same thing as downing a yard of beer as fast as humanly possible, but the spirit was the same. I didn’t know it then, but I’d spend the next 8 years getting my ass kicked in Marco’s kitchens.
I started out on the bottom rung of the culinary ladder, prepping mirepoix and washing lettuce (as well as my share of dishes and floor mats). I hustled for months before an opening came up for Sous Chef. And I didn’t get it. I was moaning on to the Executive Chef, who looked at me and said, “You wanker, you show up here when everyone else does. You leave when everyone else does. Why would Marco notice you? You’re just another prep cook.” From that day on, I showed up early and stayed late. I got my ass kicked even more. But in three months I was Sous Chef.Keep in mind that food in the UK used to be seen as second-rate, particularly when compared to the cuisine of nearby heavy-hitters like France and Italy. Marco revolutionized food in London. His wealth of experience working for French chefs like the Roux brothers and Pierre Koffman helped transform traditional pub food like bangers and mash into something fanciful and refined. The idea of British food being nasty is now outdated. Thanks in part to Marco, gastropubs are teeming with dishes made from beautiful native grown, regional produce.
For me, London has always been a place of pleasure and pain. I was cooking this super high-end food, but sleeping on a mate’s sofa, too broke to get my own flat. Marco was racking up Michelin stars but also throwing plates at the line on a nightly basis. Even this visit was full of extremes, watching the 12 contestants literally sweat through the challenges while sitting at a table with London’s culinary goddess Nigella. But that’s the beauty of London. You get to enjoy the polar opposites and everything in between.
See you at the next stop!